Verbum Ultimum: A College Constituency

New Hampshire Republicans are unethically attacking student voting rights.

by THE DARTMOUTH EDITORIAL BOARD | 4/21/17 12:45am

William Pitt the Younger became Britain’s prime minister when he was 24. For most of his time in parliament, his constituency was the University of Cambridge. Until 1950, the United Kingdom allowed the students and alumni of universities to elect members to its national legislature, and Pitt, a man who would rule his country through many of its most tumultuous moments, took office when he was barely older than the average Dartmouth senior today.

Dartmouth, of course, is not represented by a university constituency. Students must vote in the same election as everyone else — and that is for the best. However, the incumbent government of New Hampshire aims to circumscribe the voting rights of students throughout the state, not just at Dartmouth but also at Plymouth State University, the University of New Hampshire, Colby-Sawyer College and many other schools. Governor Chris Sununu and the state legislature conveniently tucked into his sport coat’s pocket are attempting to curtail the most basic rights and liberties students have to maintain their own power and standing.

State Senator Regina Birdsell introduced the bill, SB 3, which allegedly aims to address a public perception of voter fraud stemming from President Donald Trump’s fact-free claim that thousands of voters were bussed into the state from Massachusetts to vote illegally. The law would require extensive documentation in order to vote, particularly for same-day voter registration. Individuals would be required to submit proof of residence within 10 days of voting or face criminal charges and fines of up to $5,000. SB 3 would, in effect, make criminals out of anyone who attempted to vote while being a student, poor, in the military or in any way transient.

The primary burden for students comes from the bill’s provisions that aim to make it more difficult to declare a permanent residence. To prove that a voter has a “single continuous presence” in the town in which he or she aims to vote, extensive documentation must be provided. Acceptable documents include hunting licenses, state tax returns, utility bills, leases or property deeds, none of which students are likely to have. And these impediments will not just harm students — military service members, contractors and other transient workers will also be disproportionately punished.

Though this bill is ostensibly about voting fraud, New Hampshire’s Republican Party has been exceptionally clear about why it wants to restrict voting rights for students — it boils down to electoral gain. Former State House Speaker William O’Brien summed up his party’s position succinctly in 2011, stating that college students will tend to vote for Democrats because, “that’s what kids do — they don’t have life experience, and they just vote their feelings.”

Elections in New Hampshire are frequently decided by tiny margins. Senator Maggie Hassan beat former Senator Kelly Ayotte last fall by just 1,017 votes out of 738,620 cast. Trump lost to former Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton by just 2,736 votes. As students, our votes matter. Both of those margins are well below the total number of students at Dartmouth — indeed, the former is below the total number of students in a single Dartmouth class. Add that to the student votes at many other colleges in the state, and it is clear that college students have an impact on elections here.

But this does not just impact center-left college students. Conservative students will be just as impacted, their rights just as harmed. Demanding basic constitutional rights — in this case, the right to vote — should not be controversial. Our elected officials should want nothing more than a healthy democracy in which all citizens can, without undue burden, cast their ballots. Instead, the state’s Republican leadership is acting in a way to undermine its legitimate opposition.

New Hampshire should aim to attract talented young people, but by enacting this bill, the state will drive students away from its colleges and universities and make it less likely that those already enrolled will stay in the state after graduation. New Hampshire’s economy and future benefit when students stay in the state after graduation, regardless of whether, like 39 percent of UNH’s 2015 freshman class, they grew up here or whether they came just for college.

The precedent set by this bill is also dangerous. If people must settle in a place for an indefinite period of time to qualify to vote, how many college students or recent graduates will ever be able to vote? Many Dartmouth students will move numerous times by their 30th birthdays. Would all these people be unable to vote? And do the young voices generated by student votes not ultimately add a valuable perspective that New Hampshire, as a rapidly aging state, needs?

Hanover is home; Dartmouth is home. And even if most of today’s crop of students will leave the town after graduation, a new group will take their place — and another, and another. An individual student is not eternally present in New Hampshire, but the College can certainly be said to be permanent. Our most basic rights as citizens are being undermined, and the voices of the young are being silenced for electoral gain.

Let this remain a democracy where people are taken seriously. Let us know that, no matter our age or race, no matter our occupation, we are all Americans and our votes count. And let us please remind the state’s Republican Party leadership that their actions undermine the fundamental basis of American participatory democracy: the right to vote. The Constitution of this state says that, “All elections ought to be free, and every inhabitant of the state having the proper qualifications, has equal right to elect, and be elected into office.” Our current leaders have forgotten that democracy is more important than keeping their own jobs. They have forgotten what is meant by “live free or die.”

The editorial board consists of the opinion staff, the opinion editor, both executive editors and the editor-in-chief.